Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Water Water Everywhere!

After a fairly slow birding start to the year I was keen to get back to my university patch of Port Meadow to get my patch yearlist off to a good start and hopefully find a few good gulls. I was particularly keen this year as I had decided to take part in the patchwork challenge competition for the first time and also had a more personal competition going with Dave "Devil Birder" Campbell and his university patch of Newhaven in Sussex. I had set my self a substantial target of 115 for the year which I thought was just about possible in term time with a lot of effort and some crafty twitching of Adam Hartley's finds. However my spirits were dampened (both literally and metaphorically) early in the New Year when I learned of the extensive flooding around Oxfordshire. Port Meadow acts as the main flood defence for Oxford city essentially becoming a lake when the river breaches its banks. In this state gulling becomes almost an impossibility and even checking the ducks becomes more difficult as everything becomes so spread out.

Still in an effort to get away from exam revision I decided to head up to the patch on the 12th of January to give it a good going over. I started by walking along the Castle Mill Stream, an area of the patch which I usually neglect, in the vain hope of finding a Marsh tit or Firecrest or some other such goodie. Predictably, none of these hoped for birds came forth however I was almost immediately rewarded with good views of a TREECREEPER, only my second patch record and a valuable addition to the yearlist at such an early stage. Better was to follow however as further along the stream I flushed a LITTLE GREBE from the near bank which proceeded to give good views in the middle of the channel. BOOM! My first patch tick of 2014 and on my very first visit! After the initial excitement things predictably slowed down and the floods produced only Wigeon and Teal with no sign of even the regular Shoveler or Pintail. I had a good kick around the Burgess Field but found none of the hoped for Snipe although an unseasonal Reed Bunting was a nice patch year tick.

I visited again on the 14th to check the gulls which produced nice scarcities but did reveal a total of 17 Common Gulls, by far the largest count I have ever had on the patch. Common Gull is usually a scarce bird on the meadow and is frequently outnumbered by Yellow-legged Gull early in the season. For some reason they all seem to roost over at Farmoor, maybe the elevated water level has attracted them in. A group of 10 roosting Goosander, including 6 males, was another good record for the patch. So not the ideal start to the year but a few good birds on the patch list early which stands at a reasonable 43 species after only 2 species. If the floods drop in the next couple of weeks and I get lucky with a couple of scarcities such as Peregrine and Short-eared Owl then I think 115 is still in reach. I'm about to head out to the meadow to try and check the Gulls now, maybe this is the day my luck changes...

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Jack in the bag!

As every birder knows the New Year is an exciting time to be out in the field. As of midnight on December 31st the slate is wiped clean and everything is new and fresh, at least from the perspective of your yearlist. The transition into 2014 was,unusually marked with a slight tinge of sadness this year as I was fully aware that 2013, with its unanticipated list of mind-boggling rarities (including that mythical Needletail!), might be a phenomenon that's never be repeated in my lifetime. Still as January the 1st proper dawned I was excited, if extremely hungover, as me and Dave headed off to Nottinghamshire to attempt to twitch the long-staying flock of Parrot Crossbills at Budby Common. What seemed like a relatively straightforward trip quickly turned into a nightmare as frankly abysmal directions from RBA led to us missing the birds by no more than 5 minutes. The happy stream of birders heading in the other direction led my heart to briefly soar but inexplicably we managed to missed them and our search was hampered by rain, strong wind and eventually the onset of darkness. Damp and dishevelled, even the customary McDonald's did little to lift my spirits and I couldn't help but wonder, even at this early stage, whether 2014 was not to be my year!

Over the few days my previously neglected workload and an impending Ski trip saw a yearlisting trip to North Wales on the 2nd however on the 4th I offered to show Dave my old local patch, Chorlton Water Park, before he headed back home to Surrey. I wasn't expecting much having seen little in 2 years spent heavily birding the site, but as we pulled up in the car. I also suggested that Dave put on his wellies in case a spot of Snipe flushing was in order. Little did I know how prophetic those words would be. The visit got off to a good start with an adult Herring Gull on the lake, a surprisingly rare bird in these parts, before I scored a patch tick in the form of a heard only group of RING-NECKED PARAKEETS near the Golf Course.

On a (slightly embarrassing) high from this we decided to go off piste slightly on the tip and walk some wet grassland in the hope of flushing some Snipe. At this point we saw a large flock of Redpoll fly into a group of nearby Alders and decided to get closer and check them out. After carefully maneuvering ourselves into position, we started scanning the flock and Dave quickly called a Mealy Redpoll. I soon got on the bird as it flew to reveal a clean white rump. On closer inspection there in front of me was a big, frosty MEALY REDPOLL, one of the more obvious examples I've seen and my second patch tick of the day! We spent the next hour or so chasing the Redpoll flocks around the tip relocated the same or possibly another bird several times including once when it showed very well for an extended period down to 10m allowing Dave to capture a digi-binned record shot.

After observing the Redpoll flock for a while we decided to head back to the car via the flooded weedy field where I expected we might flush a Woodcock or Common Snipe. Dave waded in with his wellies on and quickly flushed a Snipe from the edge of a weedy flooded area. I initially thought it was a Common Snipe but Dave's excited shout of "JACK!" coupled with the birds compact structure caused me to do a double take. As the bird banked round it revealed a relatively short, stubby bill confirming it as a JACK SNIPE! My ultimate nemesis finally nailed on my local patch of all places. I felt elation but the brief view caused that horrible sinking feeling to start creeping in. Could I really have seen finally seen a Jack Snipe, a bird I scarcely believed existed, on my old local patch of all places? Luckily as Dave started to walk again a second bird erupted from underneath his feet. Another Jack Snipe and a more gratuitous bird which did a lap of the tip in flight giving fantastic, prolonged views of its structure before dropping down in the same field, showing the bold tramlines running up its back in the process. At this point the elation hit me and I started to laugh uncontrollably. Finally I had caught up with my bogey bird and on Barlow Tip to boot! No more being laughed at by other smug NGB members! On reflection I came to the conclusion that I had now seen every Snipe species on the British list, including the Dowitchers, a feat unmatched by all but the most keen young twitchers. As I thought back to earlier in the day I realised that my words in the car park had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe 2014 would be a decent birding year after all...a Pin-tailed or Swinhoe's Snipe would do nicely!